A Sunset Story

Photographed from a low vantage point just before the sun hits the horizon, this image brings out the true beauty of a sunset. Photograph/Yarik Mishin

Photographed from a low vantage point just before the sun hits the horizon, this image brings out the true beauty of a sunset. Photograph/Yarik Mishin

There is more to the sun setting on the beach. With colours ranging from yellow, red and blue, Chandni Gajria tells you exactly how to get those tones and more, in a sunset photograph.

This story was originally published in May 2011.

There is something captivating about a sunset. Photographing it is equally engaging. However, while photographing sunsets, there also comes the part where you need to avoid shooting clichés. Unlike what some people think, sunsets also require careful observation if you want to create a photograph that is everlasting and spectacular. And to do that you would need to be aware of a few concepts and follow some basic techniques.

Think Ahead of Time
Planning always gives you an idea of when and how you would want to capture a sunset. Scout for a few places and then settle on a place where you want to shoot. Often, we associate sunsets with beaches. But, go beyond the norm and look for unusual places from where you could capture its beauty. Your bedroom window, the view from your terrace or from within the ruins of a monument; either of these could be the perfect locations because different locations bring their own individuality to the sunset photograph. However, if you choose an outdoor location, make it a point to arrive an hour before the actual sunset, so that you can familiarise yourself with the location.

Pre-visualise the Frame
Visualise the frame with regards to the subject. Will it be a mere landscape shot? Or will you add people in the foreground? Make the frame interesting by including elements around you—it could be a bunch of kids running on the beach, or a cycle situated right in the middle of the frame. Also, you need to know whether the sun will be the focus of your main subject or not. Try different vantage points to position the horizon differently in your frame. Keep the Rule of Thirds in mind while composing the picture. While you can break rules, it is better to frame so that the horizon is located off centre.

Exploit Weather Conditions
Additionally, if you are lucky, the presence of clouds can dramatise the skies and enhance your sunset picture. During this time, you will also notice birds fl ying over the sky. Use a telephoto lens to focus on those birds while the background is a shade of red or orange to capture some breathtaking results. Different seasons offer diverse photo opportunities as well. For instance, in summer, the skies are clear and the light is harsh. During winters, mist or fog diffuse the light during a sunset. And during monsoons, the landscape appears dull because of dark clouds.

Use Different Focal lengths
Your choice of focal length will depend upon the distance of your subject from the camera. If you want the sun to be the main focus of your image you will need to zoom in on it using a telephoto lens. On the other hand, at the widest end, you can shoot an expansive landscape shot that includes a foreground, the sun and the gradation into the night sky.

Strive for the Right Exposure
The best part about shooting sunsets is that there is no one ‘right’ exposure. Your choice will totally depend on the kind of results you wish to achieve—from deep colours to pastel shades and from silhouettes to details in every area. So, rather than shooting in Auto mode, switch to Aperture priority mode, Shutter Priority mode or even the Manual mode and get the desired effect. If you know which area of the scene you wish to specifi cally focus on, you can take a reading for that area and lock the exposure. Then all you need to do is re-compose the frame and shoot.

Make use of bracketing and fi nd out whether underexposure or overexposure suits the scene better. Also, this will help you combine all the pictures shot at different exposures, to create an HDR image. The key is to experiment and fi nd out what works best.

Understand Metering
The metering systems of most cameras can get fooled, especially when the sun is in the centre of the frame. So, while the sun might get correctly exposed, the background and foreground may be rendered dark! Conversely, everything may get overexposed—the sky may appear washed out and the sun may simply end up seeming like a big orange blob. The best way to deal with this is to aim the camera in the vicinity of the sun, that is, frame the scene so that the sun is located just outside it. Lock the exposure, or set the readings manually. This will allow you to open up the exposure by a stop or two thereby allowing the surroundings to have a little more detail than shadow areas.

Choose Different Settings
Sunsets are attractive because of their golden hues. However, while photographing them, the colours may get entirely lost. So, avoid using Auto White Balance. Instead, use Daylight or Shade settings to capture and even enhance the overall warmth in the image. However, many compact cameras do not have as many manual controls. Hence, one can use the Sunset mode from among the camera’s preset modes. The Sunset mode has automated settings for the best focus and exposure settings for sunsets with the white balance set on daylight that gives a warm tint in the colours.

Explore Other Subjects
While shooting sunsets, you can even avoid including the sun in the frame, and instead, use the light at that time to shoot another subject. In such instances, take a reading from the main subject, but remember to compensate in a manner that the warm yellow/orange hues of the sky do not get washed out. Such light can offer the perfect setting to shoot macros, portraits, and landscape shots.

Add Artificial Light
Flash can be very useful when you want to bring out details in the foreground or fill up the dark parts of your frame with light. You could use it as fill light with the camera in Night mode or choose the Night Portrait mode to achieve this. This retains the colours in the background (on account of the slow shutterspeed) while having the subject in front properly lit (with light from the flash). Experiment and if you feel that the light from the flash source is too harsh, use a tissue paper or a white paper as a diffuser. If you are using an external flash, you can even use a reflector to bounce the light in the desired direction.

Magic After Sunsets
There is still a lot to photograph after the sun has gone below the horizon. As twilight starts to settle in, the magical colours become evident in the sky. There are a good two to three hours for you to shoot before you pack up. As light eventually will recedes before nightfall, you will soon realise the need for a tripod, and will have to change your settings every few minutes. Keep shooting on the Burst mode but do not photograph in a hurry just because the light will fade away. Visit the same place on different days to capture the magic of twilight.

Sunsets are extremely engaging to look at and hence, with practice one learns the skills required to shoot the perfect sunset. With time, it becomes almost second nature to one—you know just when to pick up the camera and where to look for an unusual perspective.

Tags: Better Pictures, Composition, sunset, Chandni Gajria, metering, twilight